I’m constantly asked, “How do you teach comedy?” The answer to that would be a novella. So, I’ll just focus on one aspect of my process for teaching comedy technique as a series of skills. That’s right…skills. Skills allow students to practice and apply any comedy technique to their own sense of humor. This keeps the teacher’s sense of humor out of the process and gives tools to the students to develop their individual comic voice.
Over the last thirty-five years, I’ve developed a process for identifying and teaching the comedy techniques used by great comedy writers and professional funny people.
My process is based on these three steps.
Identify the Comedy Technique
Create a Practicable Exercise
Practice the Exercise to Acquire the Skill
I know they don’t seem very impressive, but these three steps are a powerful guide to understanding, organizing, and teaching the fundamentals of anything, including comedy technique.
I’ll tackle these one at a time, then demonstrate how comedy can be taught to anyone as a series of skills.
- Identify the Comedy Technique
The first step is learning how to identify a comedy technique. To do this, I ask myself, “What is this comedian doing to achieve, improve, or solve a challenge from the stage?” For instance, if you want to learn how comedians get laughs while doing crowd work, then find the comedians who are great at crowd word. Then pick apart and study all the tricks they use to get laughs.
When I decided to teach crowd work in my classes, I did just exactly that. I watched all the comedians who did crowd work on tv. I went to comedy clubs and studied any comedian who was riffing. This is called modeling. Modeling is an approach which ignores the laughter and comedy material to clarify the underlying processes.
For instance, I was checking out a young comedian who was new to riffing. He wasn’t doing very well, but then he looked at a guy who was sitting on the side of the stage where everyone could see him. The guy wore a sports jersey, had a balding head and a huge belly. He had an attitude with his crossed arms and a frown.
The comedian pointed at the guy and said, “This guy’s thinking, ‘I’m only sitting here enduring this comedian because I can’t get laid.’” This got a big laugh. The guy turned red, which made it seem true and got a second laugh.
I instantly took note of the comedy technique of speaking someone’s thoughts. The young comedian had noticed they guy was unhappy and alone and from that crafted the guy’s probable thoughts. Then he said that thought out loud for the guy. I pulled out my smart phone and wrote down this comedy technique.
- Create a Practicable Exercise
The next step is turning the comedy technique of speaking someone’s thoughts into an exercise. I began by teaching myself this comedy technique. I found an old People Magazine and flipped through the pages. Based on the facial expressions, body language, and the headlines for every celebrity, I made up and said what I perceived to be their thoughts. I played this game once a day for several weeks
It was time to torture my wife. I always try my exercises out on my wife first. She’s a professional comedian and comedy teacher, so she has great insight into how to better teach each exercise.
- Practice the Exercise to Acquire the Skill
The final step is to teach the exercise and encourage students to play this mental game of speaking someone’s thoughts. The more the students do this exercise, in their heads, in public, and on stage the better they’ll get at it. It’s that simple.
I began with an observation about a comedy technique, turned it into an exercise, and then by practicing it anyone can attain the skill of speaking someone’s thoughts to get laughs. That’s the power of this three step process.
I’m writing about this because there’s not enough time in my life to identify and organize all the fundamentals of comedy. My hope is that other comedy teachers will embrace this three step approach and teach the fundamental techniques of being funny as skills.
Have you identified any techniques you use in your shows to get laughs?
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